Dispatches is a fortnightly e-mail bulletin of the JRS International Office. It features refugee news briefings, press releases, featured articles and project updates from our people in the field.

  Kenya: protecting women and children in Kakuma

A group of women outside the JRS Safe Haven facility in Kakuma. (Katie Allan/JRS)

This has helped me to build self-awareness and develop healthy coping mechanisms, including helping others facing similar situations.  

Kakuma, 13 March 2013 – Bridging the gender gap and protecting women and children are priorities for most, if not all, NGOs and UN agencies in the camp. Year after year, campaigns are organised to raise awareness of the plight of women, and education and training courses seek to strengthen the position of women. Concerted efforts are made to ensure the many cases reported receive public attention and the perpetrators punished for their crimes.

Yet despite the increasing camp population, 20 percent in 2012, reaching 110,000 and with further increases expected in 2013, available resources are being stretched to the limit, and tensions in and among refugee families and communities frequently reach breaking point.

With the increase in the camp population, the need for protection for survivors and those at risk has grown substantially, particularly for children. The huge increase in the number of vulnerable girls in need of protection from forced marriage and child abduction means that more resources are needed to cater their needs away from those who condone the practices. Most of these girls end up with little or no access to education.

Small steps. With all this it is easy to become overwhelmed by the enormity of the problem. Yet there is also a quiet revolution taking place. Women are protected in the JRS Safe Haven; NGOs, like JRS, provide courses to help women find jobs and lend them resources to start businesses. Although it often seems like a drop in the ocean, many lives of women and their children are saved and situations changed for the better.

Yet, for others, sexual- and gender-based violence (SGBV) continues to be an everyday occurrence, with hundreds of cases reported every year; the situation got so bad that in 2012 JRS dramatically increased the numbers of women-headed families in its Safe Haven facility to serve 105 survivor women and children, offering them important counselling services. Moreover, participants are also offered courses in the adult education programme, tailoring, and a pre-school for the children.

The Safe Haven is a highly protected facility where SGBV survivors and persons with protection risks are admitted to heal from the trauma they may have suffered at the hands of the perpetrators. Further, during this time, durable solutions are sought to ensure that they are not exposed to the same risks again. Moreover, in 2012 JRS provided scholarships to 73 girls at risk of SGBV to pursue their education, away from the rampant violence in the camp, in Kenyan schools where they are able to study in a safer environment.

"My uncles wanted to marry me off to a very rich old man…. JRS then gave me a scholarship, protection, food and clothing. Now I know my rights and will not allow anybody to take away what belongs to me. I've taken several [vocational] courses and I know I'll get a good job when I get resettled [in another country]", said Elizabeth*, recipient of JRS protection services, vocational training courses and scholarship for vulnerable girls in Kakuma refugee camp.

Some refugee women are also able to give back to others after they receive assistance.

After Agnes* defied the wishes of her relatives by marrying a man from another ethnic group, they tried to kill her husband. Aware of her right to make choices, Agnes reported the matter to the police. Afterwards, JRS sponsored her education and training, and later hired her as a community counsellor.

"This has helped me to build self-awareness and develop healthy coping mechanisms, including helping others facing similar situations", she said.

But there are many women in the camp who lack a basic education, who are unable to read and write in the languages used in Kenya. Not only does this prevent women from being autonomous in everyday life, as Jane* found out it can also have other consequences.

After her husband beat her for the umpteenth time and tried to prevent her from seeing her children, she tried to report him.

Due to her inability to speak in English or Kiswahili, she faced serious difficulties reporting him at the police station. These problems continued right through to the court process. Although Jane was not deterred, for too many other women, these obstacles would have been too much.

Eventually Jane was offered protection in the JRS Safe Haven where she enrolled in adult literacy education and tailoring classes. Now she is able to communicate effectively in both Kiswahili and English. Her case was referred to court where she raised her complaints and was granted custody of her children. 

"Learning wasn't easy for me but I managed", Jane said with a smile of satisfaction.

Insufficient. But small steps are not enough to protect women in Kakuma camp who are frequently put at risk of SGBV when carrying out the simplest daily activities, such as collecting firewood, going to food distribution centres, hospital, or schools.

More needs to be done to address the complex cultural, economic and political causes.While international and regional laws assert refugee rights and protection, the reality is far removed from these legal concepts. Patriarchal cultural practices have obstructed gender equality and especially empowerment of women in Kakuma; the socioeconomic deprivation of protracted crisis in isolated camps where the rule of law is far from guaranteed.

The legal obligations of the Kenyan state and the international community have been undermined by a lack of political will. It is only through this political will, and solid investment, which prioritises the well-being of refugees, can real strides towards the reduction of sexual violence be expected.

Alex Kiptanui, Kakuma Project Director and Caro Jeptoo, Safe Haven Coordinator, JRS Kenya

*Names have been changed to protect their identities

Democratic Republic of Congo: education prevents violence and discrimination against women

Teaching women and girls to read and write, and to learn a trade with which they can earning a living, means offering them a protected environment in which to feel safe, share their problems, socialise together and acquire a new understanding of their role in society. (Danilo Giannese/JRS)

Additional stories about the work of JRS in the Democratic Republic of Congo:


Goma, 7 March 2013 – For women from eastern Congo, leaving the village or camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) to go harvest the fields or look for firewood frequently puts them at risk of sexual violence, including rape, by rebel groups, soldiers or unscrupulous civilians, as well as discrimination and social marginalisation daily.

In the first six months of 2012, nearly 2,500 women and girls registered as rape victims in one hospital run by HEAL Africa in Goma. The NGO estimates that as many as two thirds of women and girls in North Kivu province have experienced sexual violence.

On the African continent, women consist of half of the population, but represent 80 percent of the informal economy and produce more than 70 percent of the continent's food. According to the Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Zainab Hawa Bangura, protecting these women from violence and fostering opportunities for self-sufficiency is crucial for the security of the continent at large.

For the Jesuit Refugee Service, education is a fundamental instrument for protecting women from sexual violence and helping them to gain respect and consideration in their communities. Teaching women and girls to read and write, and to learn a trade with which they can earning a living, means offering them a protected environment in which to feel safe, share their problems, socialise together and acquire a new understanding of their role in society.

"The best immediate solution is to offer women opportunities which allow them to take up activities in and around their villages and IDP camps. We need to offer women opportunities from which they can then earn a living to feed their children and send them to school", explained Angélique Chayeka, JRS Masisi Informal Education Project Director.

A better future. In 2012, JRS involved more than 600 women and girls in their informal education activities in Masisi and Mweso, areas of North Kivu province characterised by a significant presence of armed groups and on-going forced displacement of the population.

These activities include vocational training such as bag and clothing production, hairstyling, and literacy courses. In addition, in JRS training centres, women participate in awareness raising exercises on sexual violence and, when necessary, receive support from JRS staff.

"We believe we're helping women to build a better future and gain respect and consideration of their community, including of the men. Women who know how to read, write and take care of their own families become examples for others. Education can help women deal with issues of sexual violence", added Chayeka.

Mariette Kahindo is a 45-year-old displaced woman who participated in JRS courses in Masisi. She fled her village in 2001 due to conflict, and is a widow and mother of four children.

Mariette specialised in producing bags that in Masisi are used, above all, by students for their pens and notebooks. She also learned how to read and write.

"I'm really concentrated on the work I do and this allows me to take care of my family on my own, without having to beg for help from others wandering around from one place to the next. With the money I earn I have rented a house, and am able to pay my children's school fees. Since I began working, my relationships with the community have improved", said Mariette.

Finding self-confidence. According to JRS staff in North Kivu, education gives hope back to women and girls who take courses, many of whom live in marginalised conditions in IDP camps. Moreover, after spending time together in class, girl students learn to open up to each other and understand each other's problems, creating a sense of reciprocal solidarity and strength to face daily challenges.

"Here I feel safe. Attending the bag production and literacy courses from 8am to 1pm I know I'm in a safe place. I learn a trade and this occupies my thoughts. With the other women and JRS staff, we speak about how to get on and overcome everyday problems in life", said Gentille Miramuhoro, 26-year-old mother of two.

For Francisca Sendegeya, Informal Education Project Director for JRS in Mweso, education encourages women to take their lives into their own hands.

"In this part of Congo, women face marginalisation and discrimination. But when they come into our centres we see that they gain a new sense of self-confidence. They feel involved in what they are learning and in the work they carry out. This gives a different meaning to their lives. For instance, they say they are ready to speak out against sexual violence and help their friends who may be victims".

Danilo Giannese, JRS Great Lakes Africa Advocacy and Communications Officer

Thailand: rising up against sexual violence

Sexual violence is used in conflict to destroy the social fabric of a community and the consequences for the individual can be fatal without proper treatment

Seeing women share their personal experiences about struggling and overcoming challenges with SGBV is inspiring. It encourages us to continue to fight for female empowerment.  

Bangkok, 8 March 2013 – Throughout the past decade, international policy makers have placed violence against women during conflict higher on policy agenda, and much has been achieved in parts of the world, but little progress has been made in countries like Burma, where rape is used as a "weapon against those who only want to live in peace". Forced to flee to neighbouring countries like Thailand, many women are in urgent need of psychosocial support, international protection, and the opportunity to rebuild their lives.

In an effort to address this issue holistically, JRS Asia Pacific engages with organisations in the region to promote an end to sexual- and gender-based violence (SGBV) due to conflict, offers livelihood opportunities to women in vulnerable circumstances, and provides psychosocial healthcare to refugee women and girl survivors.

"Sexual violence is used in conflict to destroy the social fabric of a community and the consequences for the individual can be fatal without proper treatment", said to Zarah Kathleen T Alih, the Psychosocial Counsellor in the JRS Thailand Urban Refugee Programme (URP).

Psychosocial healthcare builds safer futures. Ms Alih emphasised that many of the urban refugees JRS assists are overcoming traumatic experiences. Holistic care is more than offering material and legal help, but also requires addressing their emotional and mental health.

"Mental health trauma and the lack of protection are pernicious issues that must be addressed for survivors to be able to go on with their lives", said Pauline Aaron, JRS Thailand Director.

JRS Thailand, along with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and Bangkok Refugee Centre, have a protocol and coordination mechanism with other agencies to provide SGBV survivors with emergency shelter and post-trauma counselling.

"Urban refugee women are one of the most vulnerable and invisible populations in Bangkok. Most of the time they are unable to communicate if they suffer from abuse because it is not something they would willingly share unless there is a close relationship. They have developed rapport and trust in us", explained JRS Thailand Urban Refugees Project Director, Rufino Seva.

"In cases where we learn that gender based violence has occurred, we immediately respond to the urgent needs of the survivor, such as housing and psychosocial support, while advocating with UNHCR to expedite their application for refugee status", he continued.

Addressing the aftermath of SGBV through psychosocial services has proven beneficial for rehabilitating women refugees affected by the violence, a step Ms Alih believes will build a safer future.

Livelihood opportunities offer protection. As Mr Seva emphasised invisibility to, and isolation from host communities is a common experience of refugees in Bangkok. As part of the JRS Urban Refugee Programme, staff help the women boost their coping skills by offering the vocational training in languages and jewellery-making to provide them with a safe source of income.

"It protects them against exploitation because it helps them gradually be able to support themselves", Ms Alih continued.

Women survivors of SGBV who are also asylum seekers face undue degrees of hardship as they await their applications for refugee status to be determined, in addition to having to deal with traumatic and physical consequences of this type of violence.

"Finding activities for these women is therapeutic. We accompany them and try to play a protective role by supporting their well-being with material assistance, and their psychosocial health through counselling and livelihood opportunities", said Ms Aaron.

"Life-skills and gender-sensitive skills activities are effective prevention strategies", continued MsAlih.

Taking a stand. Another preventative approach taken by JRS includes public advocacy on behalf of displaced women who have been abused before, during, or after flight. In addition to bringing issues of sexual violence to the attention of the authorities and UN agencies, JRS has participated in events to raise public awareness.

For instance, on 14 February last JRS participated with numerous civil society groups, including the Filipino-based grassroots alliance, GABRIELA, in one of the global events organised by One Billion Rising demanding action to protect women against all forms of violence. The event last month brought together groups from the Philippines, India, Zimbabwe, Canada and the USA.

"Seeing women share their personal experiences about struggling and overcoming challenges with SGBV is inspiring. It encourages us to continue to fight for female empowerment", said Ms Alih.

However, in order to prevent future incidents of SGBV and eliminate the detrimental effects this violence has on survivors, families and communities alike the conversation must engage all groups in society, including boys and men, and encourage everybody to take a stand against sexual violence.

Dana MacLean, JRS Asia Pacific Communications Officer

For more information on sexual violence in conflict, see the coalition which JRS has joined, Campaign to Stop Rape in War

Jordan: the self-empowerment of women

The life-skills course was started to provide basic English and Arabic literacy skills for refugee women, as well as other practical skills useful to them and their families in Amman, Jordan, (Zerene Haddad/JRS)

Additional stories about the work of JRS in Syria:


Amman, 5 March 2013 – The life-skills class is packed. Up to 40 women fill the classroom and there is a lively atmosphere as Furdous, their teacher from Iraq, makes them go over the English alphabet yet again.

This class at the informal education project in Amman is a recent addition to the curriculum. As more and more Syrian women brought their families to register at the school, it became evident that the women were also searching to learn practical new skills.

"I welcomed being scolded by a Syrian mother from the Damascus suburbs. At the end of a long conversation, she passionately stated that she didn't want a cash handout from UNHCR [UN refugee agency], but she wanted work and a way to support her family in a dignified manner", explains Colin Gilbert, JRS Jordan Director.

Egged on by this complaint, a course on life skills was organised for Syrian women at the school, and Furdous volunteered to develop a curriculum and teach the class.

"I admire Syrian women. They're very strong, and also powerful in the home, they have a lot of potential", enthused Furdous.

The course focuses on providing Arabic and English literacy skills for women. Most of the women have had little or no access to formal education. They come from socially and religiously conservative backgrounds; when the first life-skills class was held, some of the older women remarked that there place was in the home with their children, that learning was not necessary.

This comment was challenged by one woman, who said, "I always wanted to be a doctor".

"It was encouraging to see this concept being challenged from within the group. Soon the women were debating it amongst themselves and after 45 minutes they had come up with a list of things they wanted to learn in this class", said Colin.

It is hoped that the life-skills class will be a stepping stone towards helping empower Syrian women. JRS Jordan will soon start a community-based learning programme to provide students with specific skills aimed at helping them become financially self-sufficient.

Syrians of all ages comprise 30 percent of the student population in the JRS informal education project in Amman. Iraqis, Sudanese and Somalis also attend the school.

Read more about the school here.

Zerene Haddad, JRS Middle East and Middle Africa Communications Officer

Jesuit Refugee Service Jordan Director Colin Gilbert is making visits throughout the US, starting on 11 March in Phoenix, Arizonia, at Brophy College Preparatory, and will wrap up his trip on 3 April at Loyola Parish in Denver. Other stops include Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles, the University of San Francisco, Regis University in Denver and Georgetown University in Washington DC.

The schedule of his presentation, Accompanying Refugees During Times of Crisis in the Middle East: How Jesuit Refugee Service is Responding to the Unfolding Emergency, is available on the JRS USA website 

Europe: the Dublin Regulation 10 years on, inhospitality means denial of protection

An African refugee drinks a cup of coffee in a Budapest homeless shelter while pondering his future. (UNHCR/ B Szandelszky)

We have come to the point where not only is it obvious the Dublin system does not protect asylum seekers, it defies both good sense and logic. It is not a cornerstone of protection, but rather of confusion, and adversity for most asylum seekers who are subjected to it.  

Brussels, 28 February 2013 – In 1999, when European leaders met in Tampere, Finland, they promised to create a space of freedom, security and justice. Initial euphoria quickly gave way to the introduction of the Dublin Regulation in 2003, a law that determines state responsibility for assessing asylum applications in the EU. With the recent passing of the tenth anniversary of the regulation's introduction, it has become the cornerstone, rather than one element, of the Common European Asylum System.

During the last decade the Dublin Regulation has drawn the ire of NGO and refugees alike. Countless reports have shown that 'the Dublin system', which mostly transfers asylum seekers to the first EU country they arrived to, is at odds with refugee protection.

The latest report, Lives on Hold, recently published by the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE) and Forum Réfugiés, reveals the harsh consequences asylum seekers face as a consequence of the Dublin system: families separated, people left destitute or detained, and many unable to access an asylum procedure.

We have come to the point where not only is it obvious the Dublin system does not protect asylum seekers, it defies both good sense and logic. It is not a cornerstone of protection, but rather of confusion, and adversity for most asylum seekers who are subjected to it.

Worthy goal, unworthy implementation. The original intention of the Dublin system, to prevent asylum seekers from being left in orbit, is still a worthy aspiration. There ought to be a system that ensures that asylum seekers are not ignored by governments. But, practically speaking, it has made life extremely difficult for asylum seekers, including the violation of fundamental rights.

Despite the worthy goal, asylum seekers are still 'in orbit'. Against all opposition they try to reach their EU state of preference, or try to escape from countries where they do not feel protected. Our current Dublin Regulation research project indicates that, on average, people make three to four journeys between EU countries. Moreover, the Dublin system leads to the forcible separation of asylum seekers from their families in other EU states, a gross violation of their fundamental rights.

To asylum seekers, 'protection' is not only a legal entitlement connected to the 1951 UN refugee convention, but also about family unity and access to appropriate basic fundamental services. Asylum seekers go wherever they feel safest: where they know the language, or people of their nationality. Safety is where their family reside, where they have a roof over their heads and be self-sufficient, a central aspiration of asylum seekers.

Most asylum seekers do not know about the one aspect of the Dublin Regulation capable of improving their circumstances: articles 3 and 15, known respectively as the 'humanitarian' and 'sovereignty' clauses. EU states rarely use these clauses, even if families become separated as a result.

Even worse, EU states do not provide information about these clauses to asylum seekers. Consequently, asylum seekers are unable to fully participate in the Dublin process. Application of the humanitarian and sovereignty clauses requires knowledge of the individual circumstances of asylum seekers; unless states engage with asylum seekers in the process, this information cannot come to the fore.

Changes in sight? The ECRE/Forum Réfugiés report notes that asylum seekers in the Dublin system are "frequently treated as a secondary category of people subject to fewer entitlements". For years asylum seekers have expressed similar sentiments to JRS, of feeling like 'banana crates' being tossed between EU countries with little to no care for their personal aspirations. They have become objectified. Most alarming is this confusion and adversity are caused for no discernible reason. EU asylum systems have not improved; in any other sector, such a poor policy would be scrapped.

On an optimistic note, the European Parliament and Council of the EU plan to reform the Dublin Regulation. It will contain a new provision on the 'right to information' , obliging EU states to more thoroughly inform asylum seekers, as well as improved access to remedies, such as opportunities to suspend a transfer while an appeals is in course.

Though JRS worries that EU states will continue detaining asylum seekers, only in clearly defined circumstances. Importantly, states will only be able to detain unless 'other less coercive measures' do not work. This means that detention cannot be a knee-jerk response to Dublin asylum seekers.

Notwithstanding these important changes, unless EU states improve their asylum systems and the Dublin system better addresses the motivations and aspirations of these forced migrants, the protection system will continue failing those who need it.

Philip Amaral, JRS Europe Advocacy and Communications Coordinator

This text is adapted from a speech given by Philip Amaral of JRS Europe at a European Parliament conference held on 31 January 2013, hosted by Ms Cecilia Wikström, MEP, and co-organised by ECRE and Forum Réfugiés.

  JRS DISPATCHES is sent from the International Office of the Jesuit Refugee Service, 00193 Roma Prati, Italy. Tel: +39 06 69 868 468; fax: +39 06 69 868 461; email: dispatches.editor@jrs.net; JRS online: http://www.jrs.net; Publisher: Peter Balleis SJ; Editor: James Stapleton; Translation: Carles Casals (Spanish), Edith Castel (French), and Simonetta Russo (Italian).

Dispatches No. 335
Editor: James Stapleton